There are at least two distinct ways to understand how some objectification is “sexual.” These approaches are not mutually exclusive, and there is overlap and interconnection between them.
The first notion is nicely expressed by Sandra Bartky, who offers the following description. “A person is sexually objectified when her sexual parts or sexual functions are separated out from the rest of her personality and reduced to the status of mere instruments or else regarded as if they were capable of representing her.”1
Precisely what counts as “sexual” is difficult to specify and further work will be required. Bartky suggests that there are cases of this kind of sexual objectification that are neither oppressive nor even morally wrong. It can, for instance, be morally permissible to objectify someone in this way during consensual sexual activity. The practice becomes oppressive when it is “habitually extended into every area of [a person’s] experience,” including those contexts in which perceiving that person as a sexual object is inappropriate or in which she has not consented to being so perceived.2
While this kind of sexual objectification may in different circumstances implicate all ten of the practices in the Nussbaum-Langton list, it’s key distinguishing feature is its focus on the instrumentalization of the sexual parts or sexual functioning of the objectified person. The objectifier regards and treats the objectified as a sexual object, and the objectifier’s erotic focus is on the sexual parts and functions of the objectified.
A second way to understand a specifically “sexual” sort of objectification follows Haslanger and MacKinnon’s view on the matter. As Haslanger puts it,
[O]ne objectifies something just in case one views it and treats it as an object that has by nature properties which one desires in it and, further, one has the power to make it have those properties. (Sexual objectification adds to each of these two further conditions: The desire in question is an erotic desire, and the desire is for dominance/submission).3
Here the emphasis lies on the eroticization of dominance/submission. As Haslanger elucidates, the sexual objectifier “desires subordination and finds force erotic.”4
In contrast to Bartky’s notion, the objectifier’s erotic focus lies on the perceived submissiveness of the objectified and on the exercise of power in enforcing this perception, rather than on the sexual parts or sexual functions of the objectified. To distinguish these two approaches, I will refer to Bartky’s conception as “sexual objectification” and to Haslanger and MacKinnon’s as “eroticized objectification.
Put simply, while sexual objectification involves the reduction of a person to a sexual object, eroticized objectification involves the eroticization of the objectification of a person. Though conceptually distinct, sexual and eroticized objectification are, in practice, interconnected. And since this fact is relevant to my overall question about the moral obligations of men, a more detailed examination of this relationship will be required.
1 Bartky, Sandra. Femininity and Domination (New York: Routledge , 1990), 26.
2 Ibid. 26
3 Haslanger, Sally. “On Being Objective and Being Objectified,” A Mind of One’s Own, ed., L Antony and C. Witt. (Boulder: Westview, 1993) 85-125. Page 109
4 Ibid. 111